Business environments change, technology advances, and L&D has to react quickly to address new learning needs. So, what are the key challenges for L&D in the twenty-first century and how can it meet them?
Challenges and opportunities
The one constant in modern business is change. With an array of disruptive forces challenging accepted business practices and the inventiveness of modern technology, old certainties melt away. But the need for learning remains. Indeed, it gets bigger.
Yet, the traditional delivery of training, such as running courses and campaigns, isn’t always flexible enough in a climate where people need the latest information at the point of need. The top-down, formal approach here is about as responsive as turning around a tanker. We need a more nimble, agile craft to navigate the current.
In fact, the challenges L&D faces can also be seen as opportunities. The development of technology and the way it’s being applied offer L&D a chance to re-evaluate, re-position and re-invent itself for the twenty-first century.
Let’s examine L&D’s most pressing challenges and explore the means and strategies available to meet them.
Motivation and engagement: What works?
This problem isn’t entirely new, of course. The unmotivated, disengaged learner has long been the bugbear of any training program. Finding new ways of presenting learning to ensure that it’s relevant and that it sticks has always been a feature of L&D. But developments in ICT and the rise of social media and other ways of sharing information online have made it hard for L&D to compete for attention.
Firstly, there’s the ease of access to virtually unlimited information via the internet. An employee’s most powerful training tool comes in the form of a smartphone. Any query is apparently resolvable, no question too hard to answer, and no process too complex that there aren’t a myriad of ways to learn it.
For the learner, the appeal of Google, wiki sites, social media platforms is obvious. Why worry about formal training when there’s already a handy app instead? Why bother with sitting through a course when there’s an answer to what you need to know when you need to know it? Also, the internet offers direct access to experts in the field and any number of explanatory how-to videos.
These factors only raise learners’ expectations. If it’s available on YouTube, why isn’t it available through L&D? And, if it isn’t, what’s the point of L&D? But here lie both the challenge and opportunity for L&D. You may not be able to compete with YouTube, but you can help determine what’s worthwhile watching and what is substandard or misleading. Information can be as much a curse as help if there’s too much.
L&D’s role begins to shift from being the sole source of learning to be the arbiter of what works and what doesn’t. L&D becomes a form of quality control, providing the stamp of authority and a human-intelligent (rather than artificial) recommender system. In short, L&D knows and recommends what works.
Knowledge is power and so it’s natural you want to control it. In the internet age, however, that authority is ebbing away. Yet, we still need an authoritative point of view. In a world where information is so abundant, how do you know what’s good or bad? Rather than attempt to keep up with what’s out there, L&D needs to focus on what it does best: provide information and learning that is relevant to the tasks employees need to perform.
L&D providers will be hard-pressed to match the expectations of learners weaned on social media and wikis. Even the multimedia appeal of elearning is threatened by the sheer variety of ways of presenting information available on the internet. L&D is no longer the preserve of the classroom of the LMS. Learning is fully in the hands of the learners, much of it informal and difficult to categorize and track.
In this environment, a tool like a Learning Experience Platform (LXP) can help reorient L&D. Firstly, the LXP focuses on the experience (rather than the management) of learning. It’s designed to be learner-centered. Its UX look and feel and the way it operates mimic successful social media apps. It’s a collaborative, knowledge-sharing platform that can serve up a variety of content in a variety of formats, from pdfs to interactive video. Its AI-features include recommender systems, alerts and notifications, and even a chatbot to act as a mentor for learners.
Using an LXP, L&D can repurpose existing in-house content in the form of easily accessible and digestible microlearning. It can provide links to and curate external sources of content, making use of what’s out there but giving it the stamp of approval. It can also encourage its own user-generated content to capture the expertise that exists within an organization, but which is often trapped in the heads of experienced employees and is at risk of being lost when they move on.
Also, if combined with a Learning Record Store, LXPs offer ways of capturing more data on the way resources are accessed and used, as well as recording informal learning that employees do on their own. With this data-rich feedback, L&D has a far better idea of what’s working and what isn’t so that it can make more targeted interventions and add value.
Personalization of learning
The notion of targeted interventions by L&D is related to another top challenge: the need to make learning relevant and personal to the individual learner. In the internet age, learning and development is no longer the exclusive preserve of training bodies and the learners can make themselves much more responsible for their own learning.
Nevertheless, there are potential problems with unfettered learner control. Are learners always best placed to determine their own learning needs or to know how those needs are best met? Here again, is an opportunity for L&D to bring its expertise to bear.
The first step is to recognize that learning is continuous and that the demands on it will change as employees need to upskill quickly or require the latest information on a product, procedure or business goal. L&D needs to recognize where individual learners are in terms of their experience, skill levels and learning needs. This profiling can be assisted by data collected from the learning they’ve undertaken, the resources they’ve accessed and the learning paths they’ve built.
L&D then moves away from the one-size-fits-all, baseline training approach to a more agile learning approach where the emphasis is on resources, not courses. It’s about providing the sources of information a learner needs at the point of need and just in time and making critical learning interventions to support the personalization of learning.
Developing a learning culture
The challenges faced by L&D and their responses to them need to be maintained. To do that L&D needs to take up a more prominent position in the wider organization.
Beyond launching new learning initiatives or providing follow-up courses to complement existing basic training, L&D needs to be more ambitious. Too long there has been an artificial divide between learning and the working environment. ICT and modern ways of learning have undermined the notion that training happens and only then can you start work. As information has now been liberated from its traditional sources, so L&D needs to unshackle itself and move fully into the workflow.
With a range of collaborative, knowledge-sharing tools available, L&D can pioneer the development of a learning culture, focussing on contextualizing learning within work practices and removing the barriers between work and development. Learning becomes something you acquire by doing and part and parcel of work practices.
Instead of taking people out of work to develop them, L&D brings development into work so that learners can upskill themselves as needed. L&D moves close to the point of need and champions the sharing of knowledge by facilitating collaboration between employees and departments. This broader remit will demonstrate the value of L&D to the wider organization while giving L&D a far better understanding of the wider organization’s learning needs.
L&D adding value
In the past L&D’s role has been confined to the delivery and management of training. In this restricted role its real expertise has been hidden and untapped.
Ironically, the challenges posed by information technology that threatens to make L&D irrelevant can actually provide the means for its rebirth and liberation.
By facing these challenges and finding strategies to make a benefit of them, L&D can demonstrate more clearly how it adds real, tangible and necessary value to an organization.